Discovering the diary of an unknown First World War soldier in the street sounds like a plot from a novel yet that it exactly what happened to French illustrator Barroux. Intrigued, we asked Barroux more about this chance discovery and how it led to the publication of Line of Fire.
You found the diary of a ‘poilu’ (a French infantryman) in a street in Paris. Can you tell us a bit more about how this fabulous find came about and how you got the idea of adapting the diary into a graphic novel?
“I’ll walk, it’s not far… I go at a steady pace from Bastille to République…”
It was a beautiful winter’s day – freezing cold but not a cloud in the sky. I came across two men in blue overalls clearly emptying out of the contents of a basement in a big, old house onto the pavement. Amongst old furniture, mouldy books and old magazines, a cardboard box caught my eye. I picked it up and shook it. Inside, there was a notebook and a medal (Cross of War). I opened the notebook and read these lines: “3 August 1914 , Today we’re off. Mobilisation has been declared, and it’s time to go, leaving behind wife, children and family…”
It was with great emotion that I slipped the diary and the Cross of War into my bag with the feeling of having saved a piece of history from destruction. It was only later, in the quiet of my own studio, I realised that the diary traced the first two months of the First World War, day by day. It was then that the idea of illustrating the diary began to form in my mind. But it then took two more years of iconographic research (what the military uniforms and military equipment looked like, what the landscapes in this part of France looked like, etc), copying and cutting parts of the diary to impose on top on my drawings in the pastiche effect, planning and sketching out the graphic novel page-by-page, and then final illustrations, before the book was born.
What were your main concerns and challenges in adapting the diary?
Respecting the memory of this man – making my own powerful images, but images that were hopefully faithful to this man’s story. If you are a storyteller like me, you are always seeking and finding stories (that’s why I looked in the rubbish, and why I always tell students to keep their eyes and ears open at all times, and always keep a notebook to hand). So, perhaps it would have been tempting to let my imagination run away and deviate from the story in the diary. So I had to remember that there already was a great story, this man’s own true story, and I needed to be faithful to his story. That’s why I kept the text of the original diary, word by word, down to the last comma.
What strikes you most forcibly about the soldier’s diary?
The diary highlights an aspect of ‘The Great War’ that is perhaps less known, less polished and ‘processed’ if you like. This text, uncensored by the military, government or history textbooks, is a trip back in time. What was most powerful for me was the feeling of illustrating not the events and battles, but the whole story of a man as a human being: his doubts, his fears, his pain, but also his moments of joy.
Was the First World War a period of history that particularly interested you?
No, not really. I really didn’t know that much about the war either. But I had my thread, the text. When you start to pull at a thread you can’t stop. Now, I’m obsessed. I spent hours and hours in the library, researching and gathering every type of document I could find.
Through your appearances at literary festivals and bookshops promoting Line of Fire, how much interest is there among today’s children in the events of World War One?
After I took the diary home I tried to show my kids. I have three teenagers and they were like, “Ew, Dad, no, that’s disgusting, you found it in the trash… we don’t want to see touch that!” So, no, they weren’t very interested. I don’t blame them. I can’t talk because I didn’t really have any interest before I found the diary, before I’d heard about the war first hand.
I’m happy to say there has been a lot of interest in Line of Fire at events and workshops, from children, young people and adults. I think it’s about finding that thread and presenting history in a way that captures their imagination – like this one man’s story captured my imagination. I think it makes a big difference that Line of Fire is a personal account of war rather than a school textbook.
We understand that the book has been adapted into a popular theatre performance in France, with you recreating the drawings onstage whilst accompanied by a musician. How did the publication of the book lead to this venture?
Yes, my good friend Julien plays the electric guitar and together we decided to develop the ‘spectacle’. I alternate between reading the soldier’s diary and re-drawing pictures. The pictures are projected against a giant illuminated screen, either in underground venues such as the Caverne du Dragon (a museum in France) or outside in Jardine d’Alice (my garden attached to the studio I used to share with other artists) when the sun goes down.
I think what makes the spectacle work so well is the combination of reading, music and drawing and the way these different forms of performance come together to tell one story. The spectacle has become very popular and we keep being asked to do more shows. We’re doing a tour of India with the spectacle in March and we’ll be performing the spectacle in English for the first time in the UK in June.
Can you tell us a bit about the artistic technique specifically used for this graphic novel?
I worked in lead pencil, on watercolour paper (Arches 300gsm). Once a sketch was outlined, the pencil lines were strengthened and painted with a varnish that had been tinted or dyed with a light oak colour.
I chose to work in black and white only right from the very beginning of the project. I thought the black and white images, whilst modern in their style, maintained the historicity of it all. On the other hand, I chose to place the text below the images because this seemed like a very modern way of bringing it all together; in a sense the layout became the centre thread to the book that takes you through the action, the story, the war.
So how would you describe your first graphic novel experience and will you be repeating it, do you think?
It was a big challenge but a lot of fun visualising and illustrating a 100-year-old story. A new door opened in my career as an illustrator and I’m already working on a new graphic novel…
Tell us a bit about your general experience and approach to illustrating books for children.
Hmm… that’s hard. Hard because there are many books and many stories that are all different; and hard because with so many books and so many stories it can be hard for one illustrator to find their distinctive place, commercially speaking. For me personally, for every book I work on, I experience the text, I assemble ideas, I test ideas; I doubt very much that when I find the ‘right way’ I then repeat it in another book. For each book, I try to find the right framing, the right technique, the image best suited to the story without necessarily sticking to the information given in the author’s text. It’s important to look at an author’s text from some objective distance and remember than your role as the illustrator, in a good picturebook, is not to recreate the text in images but to tell your own part of the story that is not told in the author’s text.
What are your plans for the near future? Can we look forward to the publication of more of your children’s books?
I have a lot of plans. I’m working on children’s books for publishers in France, New York and London, and another graphic novel. I’m working on a new ‘How to Draw’ series for Phoenix Yard Books and I’ll be spending a lot of time in 2014 doing events for Line of Fire, and Julien and I will be touring a lot with the Line of Fire musical.
Finally, and you probably get asked this a lot, have you ever imagined that someone, like a relative of the soldier, will discover Line of Fire and recognize the diary and the identity of the soldier?
Yes, of course. The jottings in the songbook that were found with the diary continue until about 1917. What happened? I guess he survived. I guess he lived in Paris. I really hope so. I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time with this man – I’ve got to know him very well even though I don’t even know his name. Who was he really? His family? His job? The rest of his life? For now, the diary keeps its mystery. I’m ok with that.
‘An Evening with Barroux and Sarah Ardizzone’ at Waterstones Piccadilly, London on Feb 13th.
Barroux event at Heffers, Cambridge on Feb 15th.
‘Line of Fire‘; interactive drawing workshop at Imagine Children’s Festival, London on Feb 16th.
To read more about Line of Fire visit Phoenix Yard Books’ website.